I was 13 years old. As one of the pallbearers, I stood at the end of the line, watching the casket sliding from the hearse. Suddenly, I felt weak. Grief rushed through me in a way I hadn’t known before. I turned away, just at the time when I should have been reaching up. My uncle turned and screamed something nasty at me. What exactly, I don’t remember. Only that “do your job” was tagged to the end of it. I didn’t forgive him for years for that, even though it was mostly a reaction out of fear that the casket would fall.
Later that day, my grandmother came around and told all of us, “Don’t cry. You’re grandfather wouldn’t want you to cry.” She was trying to support us, but this is often how grandma’s support has been – kind of off. Anyway, her words that day, as well as my uncle’s, stuck with me, leading the charge of all the other comments and views I’d heard saying that men don’t cry, that we best be “tough,” no matter what.
That’s my micro-level story. Consider, though, that suppression of male tears is a fairly modern cultural issue. Tom Lutz, a University of California, Riverside professor, who wrote an entire book on crying, traces it to the late 19th century, when factory workers—mostly men—were discouraged from indulging in emotion lest it interfere with their productivity.
So, the suppression of tears is directly tied to the rise of industrialized capitalism. And why might this be? Well, the way I see it, the worst aspects of capitalism turn humans into machines. Sometimes it’s blunt, like forcing people to suppress emotional experiences around their work, and sometimes it’s more subtle, like making people work a certain block of time every day, regardless of what their body rhythms are, how healthy they are, or what other needs they might have.
It’s really telling how, given the suppression of male tears, there is so much trouble with men around issues of grief and loss. Think of some of the male alcoholics and drug addicts you’ve known or seen. Consider some of the men who end up behind bars for murders of spouses, partners, former partners, or family members. And what about those over calculating, uber-rational on the surface business leaders who die of heart attacks at age 55 or 60? I’d argue that some of these issues are related to the struggles many men have with crying, expressing grief, and working through grief.
Somehow, men need to break free from all of this. To be able to be fully human, and to live healthy lives. However, it goes beyond gender. Our entire society, with its obsession with speed, greed, and productivity, is implicated. Something needs to change on a grand scale. Lest we all be drowning soon in pools of grief.
“Crying” by Anders Ljungberg @ Flickr